|Bielsko - the center|
|The Great Synagogue (The Temple)|
Translated by Sara Mages
Bielsko, a city in Austrian Silesia, was founded in 1267. It lies at the south-western end of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Biała River constitutes an administrative border between the provinces of Silesia and Galicia. This region, where the borders of Austria, Germany and Russia met, was called the Three Emperors' Corner (Dreikaisereck) until the change of the political map in 1918. At first, Bielsko was under the administrative rule of the Duchy of Teschen, and at the end of the 17th century was a subordinate of the nobility (Haugwitch). Twenty years before the inception of the city, many villages stretched a distance of about 4 kilometers from the border, meaning, from the Biała River. The largest among them were: Altevilitz, Alexanderfeld, Kamitz and more all were populated with German speakers, and were economically based.
So, what were the reasons for the foundation of a new city a distance of 3-4 kilometers from these villages?
Most likely, the motives were geopolitical and strategic. The political turmoil, which occurred during that period in the entire region, worsened with the threatening invasion of the Mongols. It was in the years 1255-70. The invaders stormed to the west and advanced in the direction of Galicia (Kraków) and Silesia. To this was added the beginning of the disintegration of the Polish monarchy, which aroused concerns for the safety of borders in the nearby region. The defeat of the Mongols in the Liegnitz battle removed the immediate danger, but despite this, the authorities decided to strengthen the breached border with Galicia on the banks of the Biała River, which served as a natural border and a strategic obstacle for this purpose. The most perfect fortification was the establishment of a fortified city with a large population and all the economic and organizational structure.
The realization of the city building plan apparently encountered many difficulties. Those who settled in it were few and came slowly. 250 years after its founding the population numbered 800 people. During that time the population has grown substantially in the surrounding villages. Its destination to be a border city didn't encourage potential candidates.
A renewed initiative for the development of the city, which was related to the security problems, arose in the middle of the 16th century. The trade relations between the countries expanded rapidly. The roads, which led from east (Russia) to west (Germany) and from the south (the Balkans) northwards, served as transportation routes. Bielsko and its surroundings constituted an important transportation junction in this region. However, the transportation suffered severely from attacks by bandits seeking booty, and from a plague of smuggling which flourished without restraint. This situation prompted the government to accelerate the populating of the area, and to take more effective control measures such as the building of a fortified castle on a hill overlooking large expanse. In addition, a wall, which must have added a sense of security to the city's residents and to those who were planning to settle there, was built around the city.
There was a reward to this renewed initiative. In 1700 the number of people reached 3000. However, the most important thing was the beginning of the development of the weaving industry, which promised a livelihood to many. The government brought groups of expert weavers from Prussia to serve as a professional core for the new industry. This industry served as the foundation to the amazing development of the textile industry in the days to come, and was the most important factor to the rapid growth of the population in the city, which has grown ten-fold in a period of 200 years. The textile industry was the foundation upon which the pyramid of the city's strong economy was built. Many industrial factories have been established, some were related to the textile industry and weaving machines, mills, dye houses, and more. A metal industry was established and its products acquired a name in foreign markets.
This stormy activity within the industry directly affected other industries - commerce and craft, liberal professions and services. Bielsko became one of the industrial centers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and retained this status even after its annexation to Poland in 1918.
Bielsko belonged to the German region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its population was German by origin, or as a result of the assimilation of Polish and Jewish minorities.
The foundations of the city and its economic and social patterns were directed by the government. The lifestyle in Bielsko was an imitation of the life that existed in the metropolis in Vienna. Despite the geographic distance the ties with it were tight at all levels. The city was supported by Vienna in matters of culture and education, in high education, press, theater, and music. The exclusive address for the Bielsko public was the capital city - merry Vienna. The city's residents acquired their higher education in Vienna. The newspapers that were read came from there, and theater, opera and operetta troupes originated from Vienna. Vienna's fashion was the required fashion for the city's wealthy residents, and for this reason the city was given the name Little Vienna! Indeed, the government's integration policy was a complete success. It wasn't achieved by means of coercion, but in pleasant ways. The thousands of residents, who came to the city in the course of 100-150 years, received encouragement, understanding and help from the German government. The minorities weren't pressured to assimilate and integrate with the majority. They were only required to obey the laws, be loyal to the Austrian Empire and the German majority which ruled the multi-national country. The residents received a handsome return: economic prosperity, stability, civil equality and life without fear and turmoil. They assimilated out of lust and desire.
In the summer of 1914 Bielsko's residents woke up to the blast of war between Austria and Serbia, which became a world war. Bielsko's residents accepted it with cheers of joy, with demonstrations of happiness and solidarity, as a brief episode or as the speakers promised the masses of demonstrators it will be short trip to Serbia and Montenegro.
At the end of four years of bloody war the blood of many of Bielsko's residents, of many volunteers including young Jewish men - the mighty empire, which ruled over a vast expanse, from the Russian border to Italy, and people of various nationalities, collapsed. On the destruction of this empire rose independent states who achieved their freedom not by fire and not by sword. They received it on a silver platter from the hands of the historic Providence. Bielsko and parts of Silesia were added to the new state of Poland.
During the Polish rule, from 1920-1939, Bielsko underwent a gradual process of integration into the new regime. According to the peace treaty the German residents were promised a national minority right, and they were largely supported by the government. However, the social and economic changes and the integration policy, which was introduced by the Polish government, eroded the status of the Germans. Their numerical strength decreased due to the settlement of new residents Poles and Jews. The results of the 1928 municipal elections showed that the Germans lost their majority in the municipal government. The balance of power between the Germans the Poles were the Jews, whose number and status in the city have risen during that period.
The relations between the Germans and the Jews deteriorated. They couldn't forgive the Jews for their disengagement from the united front against the regime in the cultural and social fields. The Jews had no interest in that. With the strengthening of the Nazi movement in 1932-33 in Germany and Austria, its branches also arrived to Bielsko. The German population showed open sympathy for its brothers across the border. The Germans' representative in the Polish Sejm [the lower house of the Polish parliament] was one of the Nazi leaders in Bielsko. Before Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazi representative in Bielsko wasn't afraid to appear in public in the Nazis' uniform. The Poles were afraid to hurt him. The inclination of the Germans' hearts was discovered on the day the city was conquered by the Nazis. Youth brigades, who have been trained clandestinely, appeared with their emblems and weapons in the city streets and helped the occupiers to "impose" the German order. Their victims were Jews who didn't manage to leave the city on time. All of them perished in the terrible Holocaust that befell the Jews of Poland.
Bielsko's Germans had been punished after the Germans defeat in the war. By order of the Polish government all the Germans were expelled towards the German border. Bielsko, which at that time was united with its neighboring Biała under the name Bielsko Biala, remained clean from her Jews and their German murderers.
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Updated 24 Mar 2012 by MGH